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Some novelists are notorious for their intricate, even prickly, personalities. In Evelyn Waugh, however, nature and grace contrived to fashion an exceptionally complex, even maddening, character; understanding him in full would require the combined skills of an archaeologist, a psychiatrist, and an old-school spiritual director. It would be a mistake, though, to miss the subtleties of Waugh’s art or the depth of his artistic vision by focusing exclusively on his personal quirks and eccentricities, amusing or appalling as they may be.
Who was Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh, born in the Hampstead area of London in 1903, the younger son of a literary critic and publisher? What was his art? To begin at the surface, he was a brilliant satirist—one of the funniest writers of the twentieth century. At the same time, his humor was complemented by his literary craftsmanship, which was arguably the most well developed among his contemporaries. However one sorts out the relative merits of Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene, and others, anyone who reads Waugh closely immediately senses that he was a master craftsman of English prose.
Then there were those eccentricities. Yes, Evelyn Waugh reveled in being politically incorrect. Yes, he could be terribly self-centered and, at times, selfishly cruel. Yes, he lived a considerable part of his adult life in self-constructed physical and psychological enclaves intended to keep the world at bay—including, sometimes, the world inhabited by his six children. Yes, he affected the use of a Victorian ear trumpet in his later years. Yes, he was, as one of his biographers put it, a “displaced person” by nature. But while he may have been an eccentric, he was not a crank.
Beneath and beyond all his quirkiness, Evelyn Waugh, as he understood himself, was a Christian pilgrim—a Catholic with an intensely sacramental apprehension of reality, a craftsman with a profound belief that writing was his vocation, not simply his career. Waugh himself admitted that he was a very bad Christian, a man to whom neither prayer nor charity came easily; as he was famously reported to have said to a society matron who had complained about his boorish manners, “Madame, were it not for the faith, I should scarcely be human.” At the same time, few novelists have explored with more profundity the mysterious workings of grace in the humanizing of a disparate cast of characters.
Waugh’s extensive corpus lends itself to friendly arguments about which of his novels is the greatest. Two generations of critics have deplored both the piety and the lush, magenta prose of Brideshead Revisited; yet an argument can be made that Brideshead is singularly effective in tracing the divine twitch on the thread of human lives that calls us from lesser, easier, more self-centered loves to higher, truer, harder loves. Yet even those who defy critical convention and celebrate Brideshead will often be found stumping for the artistic superiority of A Handful of Dust as a cleaner, more sharply etched, more psychologically nuanced novel. I have long argued that Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy (Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender—known to Americans by the inferior title The End of the Battle) stands at the apex of his artistic achievement; these are, surely, the finest novels to come out of World War II, and their morally driven view of world politics, scorned in the 1960s, was proven remarkably prescient by the revolution of 1989 in East Central Europe.
Evelyn Waugh’s personal favorite among his works was none of these, however. It was Helena. When it was first published in 1950, critics paid it little regard, imagining it another exercise in Waugh’s alleged snobbery, this time masquerading as piety. Helena has, at times, fallen out of print, a fate that has befallen none of Waugh’s other novels. Yet he loved it. His daughter Harriet remembered that Helena was “the only one of his books that he ever cared to read aloud to the whole family.” Why that is so tells us much about Waugh as an artist and a man.
As for the artistry, Waugh was not modest in his claims for Helena. On the dust jacket of the first edition, he wrote, evidently without a blush, “Technically this is the most ambitious work of a writer who is devoted to the niceties of his trade.” However that may be, there’s something to be said for Waugh’s pride in his craft here: the novel’s spare narration, its crisp dialogue, its beguiling yet deceptive simplicity, the ongoing confrontation between myth and history that gives Helena its narrative line—all this suggests an intriguing experiment, in the late 1940s, with a form of postmodern fiction.
At the same time Helena was, and is, Waugh’s most intentional statement about the truth of Christianity and about vocation—the divine call to a specific work in life—as the heart of Christian discipleship. Helena is full of biting historical and theological commentary (including a hilarious put-down of Edward Gibbon’s anti-Christian reading of Roman history). But, in the main, we are far, far away here from what one Waugh biographer calls the “jubilant malice” with which Waugh pilloried the California way of death in The Loved One. In Helena, Waugh explored, sparely but deeply, the question that shaped the last thirty-six years of his life—how does one become a saint?
In the course of his conversion to Catholicism, which took place in 1930, Evelyn Waugh came to the conviction that sanctity was not for the sanctuary only. Every Christian had to be a saint. And one of the hardest parts of that lifelong process of self-emptying and purification was to discover one’s vocation: that unique, singular something that would, in accord with God’s providential design, provide the means for sanctification. Helena’s sense of vocation, and the Christian scandal of particularity (the mystery of the omnipotent, omnipresent God revealing himself through limited creation, from the people of Israel to the wood of Christ’s cross), to which her vocation bore witness, was what attracted Waugh to the fourth-century empress, whom the world remembers as the mother of the Emperor Constantine. Waugh later explained his choice in a letter to the poet John Betjeman, who confessed to being puzzled by the fact that, in the novel, Helena “doesn’t seem like a saint”:
Saints are simply souls in heaven. Some people have been so sensationally holy in life that we know they went straight to heaven and so put them in the [liturgical] calendar. We all have to become saints before we get to heaven. That is what purgatory is for. And each individual has his own form of sanctity which he must achieve or perish. It is no good my saying, ‘I wish I were like Joan of Arc or St. John of the Cross.’ I can only be St. Evelyn Waugh—after God knows what experiences in purgatory.
I liked Helena’s sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it. And she snubbed Aldous Huxley, with his perennial fog, by going straight to the essential physical historical fact of the redemption.
Waugh was not a proselytizer, and Helena is no more an exercise in conventional piety than Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, whose hero is an alcoholic priest. But Waugh was a committed Christian apologist, and his apologetic skills are amply displayed in Helena. Thus Helena was not only addressed to those Christians who were trying to figure out the meaning of their own discipleship; it was also intended as a full-bore confrontation with the false humanism that, for Waugh, was embodied by well-meaning but profoundly wrongheaded naturalistic-humanistic critics of the modern world, like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.
More specifically, Waugh wanted to suggest that an ancient pathogen was lurking inside the hollowness of modern humanisms: gnosticism, the ancient heresy that denies the importance or meaningfulness of the world. Helena is an argument on behalf of Waugh’s contention that modern humanistic fallacies are variants on the old, gnostic temptations exemplified by the Emperor Constantine and his world-historical hubris. And at the core of the gnostic temptation was, and is, the denial of the Christian doctrine of original sin—which is, in effect, a denial of some essential facts of life, including the facts of suffering and death. In Helena, the arrogantly ignorant Constantine puts it in precisely these terms to old Pope Sylvester, as the headstrong young conqueror heads off to his new capital on the Bosphorus: “You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations; in innocence, with divine wisdom and peace.”
And what was the answer to the gnostic fallacy, which produced in Constantine’s time, as in ours, a kind of plastic, humanistic utopianism? For Helena, and for Waugh, it was what the aged empress went to find: the “remorseless fact of the lump of wood to which Christ was nailed in agony,” as Waugh biographer Martin Stannard put it. This “remorseless lump of wood” reminds us of two very important things: it reminds us that we have been created, and it reminds us that we have been redeemed. Helena believed, and Waugh agreed, that without that lump of wood, without the historical reality it represented, Christianity was just another Mediterranean mystery religion, a variant on the Mithras cult or some other gnostic confection. With it—with this tangible expression of the Incarnation and what theologians call the hypostatic union (the Son of God become man in Jesus of Nazareth)—a window was open to the supernatural, and the “real world” and its sufferings were put into proper perspective. For God had saved the world, not by fetching us out of our humanity (as the gnostics would have it), but by embracing our humanity in order to transform it through the mystery of the cross—the mystery of redemptive suffering, vindicated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Gnosticism, and the plastic utopianism that follows in its wake, is every bit as much a temptation in the twenty-first century as it was in Helena’s day. Fish don’t notice water; we don’t notice gnosticism for what it is—even when it’s celebrated in a best-seller like The Da Vinci Code. Audiences still find it amazing, even unbelievable, when I tell them that, in the overwhelming majority of American universities today, very, very few members of the philosophy department will defend the claim that the reality we perceive discloses the truth of things. Somehow, the radical skepticism and relativism of the intellectual guilds haven’t penetrated down to the level of the people who sign the checks that allow the guild members to live in style. Or perhaps ordinary people—who think that they do, in fact, know some things—feel intimidated by the serpentine arguments of today’s gnostic intellectuals.
Although set more than a millennium and a half ago, Helena is a bracing antidote to this contemporary gnosticism: this “bosh” and “rubbish,” as Waugh’s Helena would put it. From her childhood, Helena is determined to know whether things are real or unreal, true or false—including the claims of Christianity. For her, Christianity is not one idea in a world supermarket of religious ideas. Christianity is either the truth—the Son of God really became man, really died, and really was raised from the dead for the salvation of the world—or it’s more “bosh” and “rubbish.” The true cross of Helena’s search is not a magical talisman; it is the unavoidable physical fact that demonstrates the reality of what Christians propose, and about which others must decide.
One Waugh biographer suggests that the novelist’s later years were marked by an agonizing spiritual quest for compassion and contrition. As for many of us, the contrition likely came easier than the compassion. But it is difficult to read Helena without discerning in its author the capacity for a great compassion indeed—a compassion for the human struggle with the great questions that are raised in every life, in every age. Evelyn Waugh’s comic energy was once sprung from his pronounced power to hurt others, as a novel like Vile Bodies demonstrates. But in the mature Waugh, the Waugh who wrote Helena and thought it his finest achievement, the farce has been transformed into comedy, and the comedy has become, for all the chiaroscuro shadings, a divine comedy indeed.
It is reported (and I, for one, believe it) that some few years ago a lady prominent for her hostility to the church returned from a visit to Palestine in a state of exultation. “I got the real lowdown at last,” she told her friends. “The whole story of the Crucifixion was made up by a British woman named Ellen. Why, the guide showed me the very place where it happened. Even the priests admit it. They call their chapel the ‘Invention of the Cross.’”
It has not been my primary aim to disillusion this famous lady but to retell an old story.
This is a novel.
The novelist deals with the experiences that excite his imagination. In this case the experience was my desultory reading in history and archaeology. The resulting book, of course, is neither history nor archaeology. Where the authorities are doubtful, I have often chosen the picturesque in preference to the plausible; I have once or twice, where they are silent, freely invented; but there is nothing, I believe, contrary to authentic history (save for certain willful, obvious anachronisms that are introduced as a literary device), and there is little that has not some support from tradition or from early documents.
The reader may reasonably inquire: how much is true? The Age of Constantine is strangely obscure. Most of the dates and hard facts, confidently given in the encyclopedias, soften and dissolve on examination. The life of St. Helena begins and ends in surmise and legend. We may take it as certain that she was the mother of Constantine by Constantius Chlorus; that she was proclaimed empress by her son; that she was in Rome in 326 when Crispus, Licinianus, and Fausta were murdered; that she went soon after to Jerusalem and associated herself with building the churches at Bethlehem and Olivet. It is almost certain that she directed excavations in which pieces of wood were found, which she and all Christendom immediately accepted as the cross on which our Lord died; that she took part away, with many other relics, and left part at Jerusalem; that she lived some of her life at Nish, in Dalmatia, and at Trèves. Some hagiographers have fancied her at Nicaea in 325. We do not know that.
We do not know where she was born or when. Britain is as likely a place as any other and British historians used always to claim her. We do not know that Constantius visited Britain in 273, for we have no details of his early life. His position and abilities would have qualified him to be the emissary to Tetricus, but it is pure guesswork to represent him as so employed. Helenopolis (Drepanum), on the Bosphorus, claimed to be Helena’s birthplace on the grounds of its name, but Constantine was whimsical in these displays of family feeling. He named at least one other town (in Spain) after his mother, and for his sister, Constantia, he renamed the port of Maiouma in Palestine, where she cannot conceivably have been born. In preferring Colchester to York I have been guided by the picturesque. The date—as all dates in this age—is uncertain. Helena’s panegyrist describes her as past eighty when she went to Jerusalem, but I have taken this as a pious exaggeration.
We do not know that the wood Helena found is the true cross. We need make no difficulty about the possibility of its preservation, for the distance in time between Helena and our Lord is not greater than between ourselves and Charles I,* but if we do accept its authenticity, we must, I think, allow an element of the miraculous in its discovery and identification. We do know that most of the relics of the true cross now venerated in various places have a clear descent from the relic venerated in the first half of the fourth century. It used to be believed by the vulgar that there were enough pieces of this “true cross” to build a battleship. In the last century a French savant, Charles Rohault de Fleury, went to the great trouble of measuring them all. He found a total of 4,000,000 cubic millimeters, whereas the cross on which our Lord suffered would probably comprise some 178,000,000. As far as volume goes, therefore, there is no strain on the credulity of the faithful.
The following names are entirely fictitious: Marcias, Calpurnia, Carpicius, Emolphus.
The Wandering Jew has no previous connection with Helena. I have brought them together as a device for reconciling two discrepant stories of the invention: one, that Helena was led to the spot in a dream; the second and less creditable version, that she extorted the information from an elderly rabbi by putting him down a well and leaving him there for a week.
In rather the same way I have given Constantius Chlorus a mistress, although he was reputed to be unusually chaste. One historian makes Helena an elderly concubine from Drepanum. I contrived the drowned Bithynian as a hint to the knowing that I thought nothing of the credibility of this tale.
There are some other echoes and reflections of this kind scattered about the following pages, but it would be tedious to point them out. They are there to be found by anyone whom they amuse.
The story is just something to be read; in fact a legend.
* At the time Helena was published, roughly 300 years.
Once, very long ago, before ever the flowers were named that struggled and fluttered below the rain-swept walls, there sat at an upper window a princess and a slave reading a story, which even then was old: or, rather, to be entirely prosaic, on the wet afternoon of the Nones of May in the year (as it was computed later) of our Lord 273, in the city of Colchester, Helena, red-haired, youngest daughter of Coel, paramount chief of the Trinovantes, gazed into the rain while her tutor read the Iliad of Homer in a Latin paraphrase.
Recessed there in the fortification they might have seemed an incongruous couple. The princess was taller and lighter than the general taste required; her hair, sometimes golden in the sunlight, was more often dull copper in her cloudy home; her eyes had a boyish melancholy; the mood—at once resentful, abstracted, and yet very remotely tinged with awe—of British youth in contact with the classics. There would be decades in the coming seventeen centuries when she would have been thought beautiful; born too soon, she was, here in Colchester, among her own people, dubbed the plain one.
Her tutor certainly regarded her with aversion as, at once, the symbol of his low condition and the daily task that made that condition irksome. He went by the name of Marcias and was then in the prime of what seemed his manhood; swarthy skin, black beard, beak-nose and homesick eyes spoke of his exotic origin; winter and summer his rheumy cough protested against his exile. Hunting days were his solace when the princess was away from dawn to sunset and he, left sole lord of the schoolroom, could write his letters. These letters were his life; elegant, esoteric, speculative, rhapsodic, they traveled the world from Spain to Bithynia, from free rhetorician to servile poet. They got talked about and had brought Coel more than one offer for his purchase. He was one of the younger intellectuals, but here fate had landed him, in drizzle and draft, the property of a convivial, minor royalty, the daily companion of an adolescent girl. There was no taint of impropriety in their conjunction, for in his boyhood a precocious and transitory taste for the ballet had once caused Marcias to be assigned for the Eastern market and he had been suitably pruned by the surgeon.
“And Helen of the white arms, fair among women, let fall a round tear and veiled her face in shining linen; and Aithre, daughter of Pitheus and the ox-eyed Klymene, attended her to the Scaean Gate. Do you think I read this to amuse myself???”
“It is only the fishermen,” said Helena, “coming up from the sea for tonight’s beano. There’s basketfuls of oysters. Sorry; go on about the ox-eyed Klymene.”
“And Priam, sitting among the elders of his court said: ‘Small wonder that Trojans and Greeks are in arms for Princess Helen. She breathes the air of high Olympus. Sit, dear child; this war is not thine, but of the Immortals.’”
“Priam was a sort of relation of ours, you know.”
“So I have heard your father frequently observe.”
From this sheltered room on a clear day one could descry the sea, but now the distance was lost in mist, which, even as she watched, closed swiftly over marsh and pasture, villas and huts, over the baths where the district commander and his new guest had lately entered, till it filled the ditch and lapped the walls below her; on such a day Helena thought, not for the first time—for such days were common in her bright springtide—on such a day the hilltown, which rose so modestly above the fens, might stand in the clouds among the high winds of the mountains and these squat battlements might overhang a limitless gulf; and while with half her mind she heard the voice behind her—“For she did not know that these, her twin brethren, lay fast in Sparta, in their own land, under the life-giving earth”—she half-sought an eagle mounting from the white void below.
Then the swift squall passed and the fog reopened, bringing her back within a few feet to earth. Only the brick cupola of the baths remained obscure, bound in its own exhalation of steam and smoke. How near the ground they sat!
“Were the Trojan walls taller than ours at Colchester?”
“Oh, yes; I think so.”
“Have you seen them?”
“They were destroyed utterly in the olden days.”
“Nothing left, Marcias? Nothing to mark where they stood?”
“There’s a modern town the tourists flock to. The guides will show you anything you ask for—the tomb of Achilles, Paris’s carved bed, the wooden leg of the great horse. But of Troy itself there is nothing left but poetry.”
“I don’t see,” said Helena, looking out along the sturdy face of the masonry, “how they could ever quite destroy a city.”
“The world is very old, Helena, and full of ruins. Here in a young country like Britain you may find that hard to realize, but in the East there are heaps of sand that were once great cities. They are thought to be unlucky. Even the wandering tribes keep clear of them for fear of ghosts.”
“I shouldn’t be afraid,” said Helena. “Why don’t people dig? Some of Troy’s bound to be there still, hidden underneath the tourists’ town. When I am educated I shall go and find the real Troy—Helen’s.”
“Plenty of ghosts there, Helena. The poets have never let those heroes sleep in peace.”
The slave turned back to the manuscript but before he could resume reading, Helena asked: “Do you think, Marcias, they could ever destroy Rome?”
“Well, I hope they don’t; not yet, anyway. Not before I’ve had the chance to go and look round. Do you know, I have never in my life met anyone who’s actually been to the City?”
“Few cross from Gaul to Italy now, since the troubles.”
“I’m going one day. The barbarian prisoners, you know, in the colossal theater fight with elephants. Have you ever seen an elephant, Marcias?”
“They’re as big as six horses.”
“So I believe.”
“I’m going to see everything for myself one day, when I’m educated.”
“My child, no one knows where he is going. I hoped once to go to Alexandria. I have a friend there whom I have never seen, a most sophistical man. We have so much to say to one another that cannot be written. The museum was to have bought me. Instead they sent me north and sold me in Cologne to the Immortal Tetricus and he sent me here as a present to your father.”
“Perhaps, when I am educated, Papa will set you free.”
“He talks of it sometimes, after dinner. But what is freedom, to be given and taken? Freedom to be a soldier and to be ordered here and there and cut down in the end by the barbarians in a bog or a forest; freedom to amass a fortune so great that the Immortal Emperor covets it and sends his executioner to collect it? I have my own secret freedom, Helena. What more can your father give me?”
“Well, a trip to Alexandria to see your sophistical chum.”
“The mind of man has no legal status. Who can say which is the more free, I or the Immortal Emperor?”
“I sometimes think, you know,” said Helena, leaving her tutor sailing free and wide in the void that he made his chilly home, “that it was a good deal more agreeable being an Immortal in Helen’s time than it is now. Do you know what has happened to the Immortal Valerian? Papa told me last evening as a great joke. They have him on show in Persia, stuffed.”
“Perhaps,” said the slave, “we are all immortal.”
“Perhaps,” said the princess, “we are all slaves.”
“Sometimes, my child, you make startlingly intelligent observations.”
“Marcias, have you seen the new staff officer who arrived from Gaul? It is for him that papa is giving the banquet tonight.”
“All of us slaves—to the earth, ‘the life-giving earth.’ They are talking now about a Way and a Word; a Way of purification, a Word of enlightenment. It is all the rage in Antioch, I hear, where they have more than twenty genuine Indian sages at work teaching a new way of breathing.”
“He is very pale and serious. I’m sure he’s employed in some very secret and important mission.”
Meanwhile in the hot room the district commander was occupied, less complacently, with the same thought. All over, except where numerous scars recorded his service on the frontier, the general was red and healthily sweating; it was a tough old body, much chopped about, lacking a finger here, a toe there, the free use of a tendon somewhere else, but the face under his bald and dewy head retained the puzzled innocence of early youth. Opposite him in the torrid twilight, like a corpse in a mortuary, lay Constantius, as pale as when he entered, damp and white and wiry, still asking questions. He had asked questions ever since he had arrived two days ago, respectfully as befitted a junior officer, insistently as one who had a right to know;
pertinent, delicate questions on topics that, if raised at all between a senior and a junior officer, should have been raised by the general.
“Shocking business about the Divine Valerian,” said the district commander, seeking to turn the conversation to wider interests.
“Very shocking, sir.”
“First a mounting block, then a footstool, now a dummy, skinned, tanned, stuffed full of straw, swinging from the rafters for the Persians to poke fun at. I only heard the full story the other day.”
“Yes, it’s had the most disastrous effect on our prestige in the East,” said Constantius. “I was in Persia last winter and found things very sticky. Do you think, if the news gets about, it’s likely to have any effect on the frontier legions—the Second Augusta, for instance? How is the morale of the Second Augusta?”
“Splendid body of men. Only wish they could have a cut at the Persians; they’d show them.”
“Are they? Do you? That’s very interesting. We had rather disquieting reports of the Second Augusta. Wasn’t there some trouble in November about their winter quarters?”
“No,” said the general.
“Well, we can safely leave the Persians to the Immortal Aurelian.” Constantius rose from his slab of marble. “I’ll see you in the tepid room, sir.”
The general grunted and turned on his face, glad to be rid of the fellow yet resentful of his manner of going; when he had joined under the Divine Gordian, junior officers had deferred to their seniors or known the reason why.
“Depend upon it,” thought the general, unhappy at this, by long habit, the happiest hour of the day, when the annoyances of the flesh welled up and were washed away, when the stiff old muscles relaxed and deep inside him he felt the digestive juices flowing fresh and expectant of dinner; “depend upon it that fellow is up to something.”
Constantius’s papers were in order, under Tetricus’s own seal; a liaison officer on a routine tour of the province. “Routine my eye,” thought the general. Who was this “we” who knew so much and wanted to know so much more? “Not Tetricus, or I’m a Pict,” thought the general. How had “we” come to hear of that disgraceful business of the Second Augusta at Chester? The general clapped his hands and the slave brought, ready prepared for him, the draft he always took at about this hour; cold, Celtic beer spiced with ginger and cinnamon, a beverage the general had taught them to make; it had the property of simultaneously creating and satisfying thirst; the general drank deeply and rubbed his old flanks.
When at length he marched to the tepid room Constantius had finished his massage.
“I’ll see you in the cool room, sir,” he said and took the cold plunge, not, as the general did, with many frank hissings and splutterings, but calmly and deliberately descending the steps one by one as though to some religious lustration, and emerging into the hot towels, swathing himself in them, and proceeding sedately to his couch in the hall beyond as though vested for the altar.
The slaves knew every inch of the general’s body but they seldom got through the afternoon’s rubbing without a fair amount of cursing. Today the general was fretful but silent. He wallowed briefly in the cold water then, his mind resolved, sought the couch next to Constantius. A question greeted him before he was fully settled.
“This fellow Coel we’re dining with this evening; what sort of fellow is he, sir?”
“You’ll see for yourself. He’s all right. Perhaps he lacks gravity.”
“Is he of any importance in local politics?”
“Politics,” said the general, “politics”; and then after a pause he said what he had made up his mind to say when he lay alone in the hot room. “You’ll find Britain in a highly prosperous state, more so, I daresay, than any province in the empire, and the reason is that we don’t go in for politics over here. We come under Gaul and we take our orders from there, provided they don’t give us too many; when they do, we just seem to forget about them. Posthumus, Lollianus, Victorinus, Victoria, Marius, Tetricus—they’re all one to us.”
“Would you say, sir, that Tetricus has a considerable following among—?”
“Just a minute, young man, I haven’t finished what I was saying.
“I’ve been a regimental soldier all my life until they retired me here. I’ve never gone in for politics or for intelligence or for special missions. You’ve asked me a lot of questions in the last two days and I haven’t asked you one. I haven’t asked you who you are or what you want. Your letters say you are a member of Tetricus’s staff; that’s quite good enough for me. As I’ve told you, I’ve never gone in for secret-service work and it’s too late now, but I’m not quite a fool yet. Allow me to give a little advice. Next time you want to pass yourself off as a member of Tetricus’s staff, don’t boast about making trips to Persia, and if you want me to think you come from Cologne, don’t pick your personal guard from a legion that has served on the Danube for the last fifteen years.
“And now, if you will excuse an old man’s infirmity, I propose to sleep.”
“And Aphrodite caught up Paris in a cloud of darkness and bore him to his own fragrant and high-vaulted chamber and herself sought Helen where she stood among her women above the Scaean Gate. She plucked her perfumed gown and said: ‘Come, Paris is waiting on his carved bed, radiant, delicately clad as though he were resting from the dance.’ And Helen, daughter of Zeus, slipped away from her attendant women and stood in her shining veil in Paris’s room. Laughter-loving Venus set a chair for her by the bed, and Helen said: ‘Would you had fallen in battle.’ But Paris answered: ‘We too have Immortal allies. Come. My love is sweet and hot as the day I took ship with you from Sparta, as the night on sea-girt Kranae where I first knew you. Come.’ So they lay together on the fretted bed while beyond the walls Menelaus roamed like a wild beast seeking for Paris and finding him not in all the watching host. Neither Greek nor Trojan would hide Paris for they hated him as they hated black Death itself and while he lay heedless, King Agamemnon proclaimed Menelaus the victor and fair Helen forfeit.”
“What a lark!” said Princess Helena. “What a sell! Can’t you just see Menelaus ramping and raging about and being smacked on the back by everyone and Agamemnon pompously declaring him the winner? And there was Helen tucked up with Paris all the time. Oh, what sucks!”
“It is an incident quite inconsistent with the heroic virtues,” said Marcias. “For that reason the great Longinus considers it the interpolation of a later hand.”
“Ah,” said Helena, “the Great Longinus.”
He was a figure half of fun to her, this stupendous pundit, half of awe; her second heroic myth. The first was her nurse’s father, a sapper sergeant slain by the Picts; she never tired, as a child, of stories of his valor and integrity, and when she was translated from nursery to schoolroom, Longinus inappropriately took a place beside him; Marcias paid him more than filial homage; his name occurred hourly, at every lesson. Omniscient, polymath, throned in the remote splendors of Palmyra, Longinus had become invested in her mind with the legends of her race, identified with those white-robed men of the sickle and the mistletoe whose garbled lore was still whispered in the kitchen quarters. These dissimilar paragons were the twin deities of her adolescence; she had a homely, humorous intimacy with them, but also awe.
The snores of the district commander still rang through the dome while Constantius neatly dressed himself and went alone through the rain and mire to the city gates.
“There he goes,” said Helena, “the man of mystery, the beauty.”
When he reached his quarters he called the commander of the guard.
“Corporal major, the men are to take down their regimental numerals immediately.”
“Very good, sir.”
“And, corporal major, impress upon them the need for absolute security. If anyone asks any questions, they’re from the Rhine.”
“They’ve been told, sir.”
“Well, tell them again. If I hear anyone’s been talking, I’ll confine the lot to barracks.”
Then Constantius called his valet and his hairdresser and set about such adornments for dinner as were possible to a field officer traveling light, on confidential business.
The ladies did not dine with the gentlemen but they dined extremely well; their cozier parlor lay between hall and kitchen, and Helena’s aunt, who ruled the household, made her own choice of the dishes before they left the charcoal and conducted them under her own eyes, succulent and piping hot, less elaborately garnished than those that appeared before the king, but with all their pure flavors unimpaired. Moreover, instead of lolling in manly style among the cushions and being fed by slaves, the ladies of the household squatted square to their victuals at a low table, rolled back their sleeves, and got their hands well into the pot. The plain but abundant fare comprised oysters stewed with saffron, boiled crabs, soles fried in butter, suckling pig seethed in milk, roast capons, tidbits of lamb spitted between slices of onion, a simple, sweet confection of honey and eggs and cream, and a deep Samian pitcher of home-brewed mead; it would not have done in Italy or Egypt but it was well suited to the British ladies’ taste and circumstances.
“What a spread!” said Princess Helena, when she had guzzled. “What a blowout!”
The ladies were putting themselves in order for the concert. Helena’s hair, which at her lesson had hung in thick russet plaits, was now maturely dressed and bedizened; she wore a robe of embroidered silk, which had come to her by dromedary and ship and pack mule and porter from distant China; her narrow slippers shone with stones and gold thread, and when she had washed her hands and white forearms—“Helen of the white arms, fair among women,” she thought as she dabbled in the steaming limewater—she planted all sixteen various rings, which had been the youngest sister’s share of her mother’s jewel chest, firmly on her strong young fingers.
“You look perfectly charming, child,” said her aunt, adjusting the fillet on Helena’s brow. “We won’t go in quite yet. The gentlemen have just gone to be sick.”
Presently, the ladies of the royal house made their entry. “Helen, fair among women, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus,” thought Helena, as, last but tallest of the line, behind her aunt, her father’s three mistresses, her three married and two unmarried sisters, Helena saluted her father. He waved to them generally and genially from his couch and they took their places at the side of the room on their ten stiff chairs.
Then the orchestra struck up, three strings and a wayward pipe, and the singers—first one, then another, at haphazard it seemed; finally all eight of the patriarchal basses—joined their full lungs in the opening dirge.
“I expect you are used to this kind of thing,” said the district commander privately to Constantius.
“To nothing quite like this.”
“We have it whenever Coel gives a party. It lasts for hours.”
The first direful sounds raised the king, who had already shown abundant pleasure in his entertainment, to evident transports. “My favorite piece,” he explained; “the lament for my ancestors. We usually start with it. Like all true art it has the merit of prodigious length. Of course since it is in our native tongue, some of it may be lost on you. I will tell you when anything particularly fine is said. At the moment they are treating of the foundation of my family in remote, almost legendary, times by the irregular alliance of the river Scamander with the nymph Idaea. Listen.”
High and thin and heartless sang the fiddles and the chanter; deep and turgid and lachrymose sang the bearded choristers. Lax and supine sprawled the soldiers; rigid and erect sat the royal women. Softly the page stepped from couch to couch with the mead bowl; heavily the district commander stumbled once more to the vomitorium.
Uncouth, hypnotic, the voices filled the hall from coffered roof to mosaic pavement and carried far into the night their tale of death.
“Brutus, great-grandson of Aeneas, has now reached Britain,” said Coel at length; “we have almost, you might say, reached modern times. He is the real father of our race. He found the whole island quite empty, you know, except for a few old giants. After Brutus the story becomes much more circumstantial.”
None of King Coel’s family, it appeared, had died naturally; few even plausibly. One took doctored wine at the hands of his stepdaughter and ran horribly amok in the forest, naked, tearing up young trees and frightening the wolves and bears. And his was by no means the most alarming case. All the bereavements of that ancient and tuneless family—classic myth, Celtic fairy tale, and stark history—mingled and swelled inharmoniously, among the cooking smells and lamp smells and the heavy smell of mead.
Constantius was a man of temperate habits; he had seen more than one officer gormandize himself out of fine prospects in the days of the Divine Gallienus; but he had drunk deep that night, so that the sharp pain of the entertainment was dulled and he lay bemused, borne out of himself by the fumes of liquor, so that he looked down on all his talents, neatly displayed like cut gems on the engraver’s tray, and saw himself almost as he was. There was little self-love in Constantius; others, not he, in the last two centuries had been consumed by that master passion; others, now the peers and playmates of the gods, had died of that sickness. Constantius in his own eyes fell short of perfection. His talents comprised all that was needed—no more; a representative collection, not unique, but adequate; he would make do. His need was simple; not today, not tomorrow, but soon, sometime before he grew too old to make proper use of it, Constantius wanted the world.
“They are singing of the flagellation of Boadicea,” said Coel; “rather a delicate subject to us Romans, but very dear to my simple people.”
The recital was scarcely less familiar to Helena than to her father; she withdrew from the catalog of mortality and, eupeptically, indulged a fantasy she had cherished since childhood. Perhaps each of the women had some such secret, interior pastime, so still they sat on their ten severe thrones. Helena was playing horses, a game that began with her first pony; a breathless, wordless steeplechase across impassable superequine obstacles, splendidly leapt, and endless stretches of resilient sward. Helena had galloped thus in solitude hours without number, but of late years, as her womanhood broke bud, a keener excitement infused the game. Two played it now. There was the will of the rider that spoke down the length of the rein, from the gloved hand to the warm and tender tongue under the bit; articulate, coaxing, commanding, now barely sensible, light as an eyelid, now steel-hard and compelling; that spoke in the stab of the spur and sudden double smart of the whip. And there was the will of the animal to shrink and start, to toss aside the restraint of bridle and saddle and the firm legs across her, to shake the confident equipoise, awake him to the intense life and the will to combat under him; leaving him nothing of what he took for granted, draw more from him until he put the whole of himself into the tussle. Then at the height of the play, in sweat and blood-flecked foam, came the sweet moment of surrender, the fusion, and the two were off together, single, full stretch over the resounding earth, as they had raced in childhood, with none but the wind to oppose them. She took some handling, the chestnut.
Thus Helena galloped while through the hypocaustic air the death song of her ancestors rumbled and wailed.
“They are singing of Cymbeline,” said the king.
Presently the hand on the rein steadied her, pressed her gently back into a walk, then patted her neck, and she shook in answer the silver ornaments of her harness. They strolled together, hand in hand, as it were, like a courting couple along the waterside, until a slight shift of weight, a pressure from the leg, a gathering up of attention in the thrilling touch on the lip, set her once more stepping briskly out in the glades of her keen, young mind.
The dirge ended and the singers’ throats now gurgled with mead; the piper shook out the spittle and the fiddlers tinkered with their strings. The king’s applause momentarily awoke the company from their several reveries. Momentarily only; there was an interval of pledging and quaffing; then the music began again.
“This is a very modern song,” said Coel; “it was written by the chief bard in my grandfather’s day to commemorate the annihilation of the IX Legion”; and, deep in the toga, which contrary to metropolitan fashion he always wore at table, the old king rumbled with amusement.
Trotting through the limpid upper air of her thoughts, stepping high and delicately, nibbling the bit, tossing the buckles and sparkling bosses of her bridle, making the reins ring like a harp string with the note of assent and exultation, tenderly, sweetly displaying before the world the chivalry of her rider; thus went Helena.
And Constantius also rode; rode in triumph; not in his chariot amid the sweat and garlic-reek of the City, not behind yoked sovereigns and exotic animals, the almoners and augurs and tumblers and ceremonial troops, not in the pantomime of official triumph; but at the head of battle-worn, victorious legions, at the heart of power, at the entry into possession; he rode between crowds who were part sullen, part timorous, part flushed with gratitude for their immediate salvation, all scanning him as he passed for a sign of what was coming to them. That was Constantius’s triumph as he jogged along in his service uniform into a conquered and anxious world.
And, as he lay, he looked across the hall to the row of women; scarcely observing them, his eyes passed from one rapt face to another, until in the lowest place but highest by a handbreadth, Helena raised hers to meet them. They gazed at one another, unknowing, separate, then running together like drops of condensed steam on the ewer, pausing, bulging one against the other, until, suddenly, they were one and ran down in a single minute cascade. Helena trotted on and Constantius bestrode her in triumph.
Constantius had done something unprecedented and unpremeditated, something for which his talents were ill suited; he had fallen in love.
|II||Fair Helen Forfeit||29|
|III||None but My Foe to Be My Guide||41|
|IV||The Career Open to Talent||65|
|V||The Post of Honor Is a Private Station||95|
|VII||The Second Spring||119|
|VIII||Constantine's Great Treat||127|
|X||The Innocence of Bishop Macarius||185|
|Questions for Reflection and Discussion||231|
|About the Author||237|