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By Evelyn Waugh
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To Penelope Betjeman
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 low-down 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 which excite his imagination. In this case the experience was my desultory reading in History and Archaeology. The resulting book, of course, is neither History or 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 wilful, obvious anachronisms which 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 encyclopaedias, 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 King 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 milimetres, 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 connexion 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.
Once, very long ago, before ever the flowers were named which 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 which 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 travelled 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 draught, the property of a convivial, minor royality, 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 hill-town, 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 re-opened, 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 which 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 theatre 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 which 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 which, 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 draught 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 slave 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. Posthumous, 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 valour 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 splendours 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 dieties 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 his guard.
‘Corporal-major, the men are to take down their regimental numerals immediately.’
‘Very good, sir.’
‘And, corporal-major, impress on 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 hair-dresser and set about such adornments for dinner as were possible to a field-officer travelling light, on confidential business.
The ladies did not dine with the gentlemen but they dined extremely well; their cosier parlour lay between hall and kitchen and Helena’s aunt, who ruled the household, made
- "[Helena] may be read on two levels of appreciation. As bright entertainment, or as deceptively profound commentary. On both levels it's a superlatively well done book."—Chicago Tribune
- "In Helena, the play of words and the fireworks, the exquisite descriptions of landscapes, and even the finished portraits of the heroine, her husband, and her son, are always subordinate to the author's broad vision of the mixed anguish and hope with which the world of Constantine's time was filled."—New York Herald Tribune
- On Sale
- Dec 11, 2012
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Back Bay Books