Serapis by Georg Ebers
After leaving his stepmother Demetrius made good use of his time and dictated a number of letters to his secretary, a slave he had brought with him to Alexandria, for the use of the pen was to him unendurable labor. The letters were on business, relating to his departure from Cyrenaica and his purpose of managing his own estates for the future, and when they lay before him, finished, rolled up and sealed, he felt that he had come to a mile-stone on his road, a landmark in his life. He paced the room in silence, trying to picture to himself the fate of the slaves and peasants who, for so many years, had been his faithful servants and fellow-laborers, whose confidence he had entirely won, and many of whom he truly loved. But he could not conceive of their life, their toil or their festivals, bereft of images, offerings, garlands, and hymns of rejoicing. To him they were as children, forbidden to laugh and play, and he could not help once more recurring to his boyhood and the day of his going to school, when, instead of running and shouting in his father's sunny garden, he had been made to sit still and silent in a dull class-room. And now had the whole world reached such a boundary line in existence beyond which there was to be no more freedom and careless joy--where a ceaseless struggle for higher things must begin and never end?
If the Gospel were indeed true, and if all it promised could ever find fulfilment, it might perhaps be prudent to admit the sinfulness of man and to give up the joys and glories of this world to win the eternal treasure that it described. Many a good and wise man whom he had known--nay the Emperor, the great and learned Theodosius himself--was devoted heart and soul to the Christian faith, and Demetrius knew from his own experience that his mother's creed, in which he had been initiated as a boy and from which his father, after holding him at the font had perverted him at an early age, offered great consolations and enduring help to those whose existence was one of care, poverty, and suffering. But his laborers and servants? They were healthy and contented. What power on earth could induce them--a race that clung devotedly to custom--to desert the faith of their fathers, and the time-honored traditions to which they owed all the comforts and pleasures of life, or to seek in a strange creed the aid which they already believed that they possessed.
He did not repent of his determination; but he nevertheless said to himself that, when once he was gone, Mary would proceed only too soon on the work of extermination and destruction; and every temple on the estate, every statue, every whispering grotto, every shrine and stone anointed by pious hands, doomed now to perish, rose before his fancy.
Demetrius was accustomed to rise at cock-crow and go to bed at an early hour, and he was on the point of retiring even before the usual time, when Marcus came to his room and begged him to give him yet an hour.
"You are angry with my mother," said the younger man with a look of melancholy entreaty, "but you know there is nothing that she would not sacrifice for the faith. And you can smile so bitterly! But only put yourself in my place. Loving my mother as I do, it is acutely painful to me to see another person--to see you whom I love, too, for you are my friend and brother--to see you, I say, turn your back on her so completely. My heart is heavy enough to-day I can tell you."
"Poor boy!" said the countryman. "Yes, I am truly your friend, and am anxious to remain so; you are not to blame in this business--and for that matter, I am anything but cheerful. You have chosen to say: Down with the shrines! Perish all those who do not think as we do! Still, look at the thing as you will, in some cases certainly violence must ensue--nay, if no blood is shed it will be a wonder! You sum up the matter in one common term: The heathen peasants on the estate. My view of it is totally different; I know these farmers and their wives and children, each one by name and by sight. There is not one but is ready to bid me good day and shake my hand or kiss my dress. Many a one has come to me in tears and left me happy.--By the great Zeus! no one ever accused me of being soft-hearted, but I could wish this day that I were harder; and my blood turns to gall as I ask--What is all this for--to what possible end?"
"For the sake and honor of the faith, Demetrius; for the eternal salvation of our people."
"Indeed!" retorted Demetrius with a drawl, "I know better. If that and that alone were intended you would build churches and chapels and send us worthy priests--Eusebius and the like--and would try to win men's hearts to your Lord by the love you are always talking so much about. That was my advice to your mother, only this morning. I believe the end might be attained by those means, among us as elsewhere; ultimately it will, no doubt, be gained--but not to-day nor to-morrow. A peasant, when he had become accustomed to the church and grasped a trust in the new God, would of his own accord give up the old gods and their sanctuaries; I could count you off a dozen such instances. That I could have looked on at calmly, for I want only men's arms and legs and do not ask for their souls; but to burn down the old house before you have collected wood and stone to build a new one I call wicked.--It is cruelty and madness, and when so shrewd a woman as your mother is bent on carrying through such a measure, come what may, there is something more behind it."
"You think she wants to get rid of you--you, Demetrius!" interrupted Marcus eagerly. "But you are mistaken, you are altogether wrong. What you have done for the estate . . ."
"Oh! as for that!" cried the other, "what has my work to do with all this? Ere the year is out everything that can remind us of the heathen gods is to be swept away from the hamlets and fields of the pious Mary. That is what is intended! Then they will hurry off to the Bishop with the great news and to crown one marvel with another, the reversion will be secured of a martyr's nimbus. And this is what all this zeal is for--this and nothing else!"
"You are speaking of my mother, remember!" cried Marcus, looking at his brother with a touching appeal in his eyes. Demetrius shook his shaggy head and spoke more temperately as he went on:
"Yes, child, I had forgotten that--and I may be mistaken of course, for I am no more than human. Here one thing follows so close on another, and in this house I feel so battered and storm-tossed, that I hardly know myself. But old Phabis tells me that steps are being seriously taken to procure the title of Martyr for our father Apelles."
"My mother is quite convinced that he died for the faith, and she loved him devotedly . . ."
"Then it is so!" cried Demetrius, grinding his teeth and thumping his fist down on the table. "The lies sown by one single man have produced a deadly weed that is smothering this miserable house! You--to be sure, what can you know of our father? I knew him; I have been present when he and his friends, the philosophers, have laughed to scorn things which not only you Christians but even pious heathen regard as sacred. Lucretius was his evangelist, and the Cosmogony of that utter atheist lay by his pillow and was his companion wherever he went."
"He admired the heathen poets, but he was a Christian all the same," replied Marcus.
"Neither more nor less than Porphyrius, our uncle, or myself," retorted his brother. "Since the day when our grandfather Philippus was baptized, wealth and happiness have deserted this house. He gave up the old gods solely that he might not lose the right of supplying the city and the Emperor with corn, and became a Christian and made his sons Christians. But he had us educated by his heathen friends, and though we passed for Christians we were not so in fact. When it was absolutely necessary he showed himself in church with us; but our daily life, our pleasures, our pastimes were heathen, and when life began for us in earnest we offered a bleeding sacrifice to the gods. It was impossible to retract honestly, since a renegade Christian returning to the worship of the old gods is incapacitated by law from making a will. You know this; and when you ask me why I am content to live alone, without either wife or child--and I love children, even those of other people--a solitary man dragging out my days and nights joylessly enough--I tell you: I am openly and honestly a worshipper of our old gods, and I will not go to church because I scorn a lie. What should I do with children who, in consequence of my retractation, must forfeit all I might leave them? It was this question of inheritance only that induced my father to have us baptized and to make a pretense of Christianity. He set out for Petra with his Lucretius in his satchel--I packed it with my own hands into his money-bag--to put in a claim to supply grain to the 'Rock city.' He was slain on his way. home; most likely by his servant Anubis, who certainly knew what money he had with him, and who vanished and left no trace. Because--about the same time--a band of Saracens had fallen on some Christian anchorites and travellers, in the district between Petra and Aila, your mother chose to assume a right to call our father a martyr! But she knew his opinions full well, I tell you, and shed many a tear over them, too.--Now she has expended vast sums on church-building, she has opened the Xenodochium and pours her money by lavish handfuls clown the insatiable throats of monks and priests. To what end? To have her husband recognized as a martyr. Hitherto her toil and money have been wasted. In my estimation the Bishop is a perfectly detestable tyrant, and if I know him at all he will take all she will give and never grant her wish. Now she is preparing her great move, and hopes to startle him into compliance by a new marvel. She thinks that, like a juggler who turns a white egg black, she can turn a heathen district into a Christian one by a twist of her finger. Well--so far as I am concerned I will have nothing to do with the trick."
During this harangue Marcus had alternately gazed at the floor and fixed his large eyes in anguish on his brother's face. For some minutes he found nothing to reply, and he was evidently going through a bitter mental struggle. Demetrius spoke no more, but arranged the sheets of papyrus that strewed the table. At length Marcus, after a deep sigh, broke out in a tone of fervent conviction and with a blissful smile that lighted up his whole face:
"Poor mother! And others misunderstand her just as you do; I myself was in danger of doubting her. But I think that now I understand her perfectly. She loved my father so completely that she hopes now to win for his immortal soul the grace which he, in the flesh, neglected to strive after. He was baptized, so she longs to win, by her prayers and oblations, the mercy of the Lord who is so ready to forgive. She herself firmly believes in the martyrdom of her beloved dead, and if only the Church will rank him among those who have died for Her, he will be saved, and she will find him standing in the pure radiance of the realms above, with open arms, overflowing with fervent love and gratitude, to welcome the faithful helpmate who will have purged his soul. Yes, now I quite understand; and from this day forth I will aid and second her; the hardest task shall not be too hard, the best shall not be too good, if only we may open the gates of Heaven to my poor father's imperilled soul."
As he spoke his eye glistened with ecstatic light; his brother, too, was touched, and to hide his emotion, he exclaimed, more recklessly and sharply than was his wont:
"That will come all right, never fear, lad!" But he hastily wiped his eyes with his hand, slapped Marcus on the shoulder, and added gaily: "It is better to choke than to swallow down the thing you think right, and it never hurt a man yet to make a clean breast of his feelings, even if we do not quite agree we understand each other the better for it. I have my way of thinking, you have yours; thus we each know what the other means; but after the tragedy comes the satyr play, and we may as well finish this agitating evening with an hour's friendly chat."
So saying Demetrius stretched himself on a divan and invited Marcus to do the same, and in a few minutes their conversation had turned, as usual, to the subject of horses. Marcus was full of praises of the stallions his brother had bred for him, and which he had ridden that very day round the Myssa--[The Myssa was the Meta, or turning-post]--in the Hippodrome, and his brother added with no small complacency:
"They were all bred from the same sire and from the choicest mares. I broke them in myself, and I only wish. . . . But why did you not come to the stables this morning?"
"I could not," replied Marcus coloring slightly. Then we will go to-morrow to Nicopolis and I will show you how to get Megaera past the Taraxippios."--[The terror of the horses.]
"To-morrow?" said Marcus somewhat embarrassed. "In the morning I must go to see Eusebius and then. . . ."
"Then I must--I mean I should like. . . ."
"Well, to be sure I might, all the same.--But no, it is not to be done--I have. . . ."
"What, what?" cried Demetrius with increasing impatience: "My time is limited and if you start the horses without knowing my way of managing them they will certainly not do their best. As soon as the market begins to fill we will set out. We shall need a few hours for the Hippodrome, then we will dine with Damon, and before dark. . . ."
"No, no," replied Marcus, "to-morrow, certainly, I positively cannot. . . ."
"People who have nothing to do always lack time," replied the other. "Is to-morrow one of your festivals?"
"No, not that=-and Good Heavens! If only I could. . . ."
"Could, could!" cried Demetrius angrily and standing close in front of his brother with his arms folded. "Say out honestly: 'I will not go,' or else, 'my affairs are my own secret and I mean to keep it.'--But give me no more of your silly equivocations."
His vehemence increased the younger man's embarrassment, and as he stood trying to find an explanation which might come somewhat near the truth and yet not betray him, Demetrius, who had stood watching him closely, suddenly exclaimed:
"By Aphrodite, the daughter of the foam! it is a love affair--an assignation.--Woman, woman, always woman!"
"An assignation!" cried Marcus shaking his head. "No indeed, no one expects me; and yet--I had rather you should misunderstand me than think that I had lied. Yes--I am going to seek a woman; and if I do not find her to-morrow, if in the course of tomorrow I do not succeed in my heart's desire, she is lost--not only to me, though I cannot give up the heavenly love for the sake of the earthly and fleshly--but to my Lord and Saviour. It is the life--the everlasting life or death of one of God's loveliest creatures that hangs on to-morrow's work."
Demetrius was greatly astonished, and it was with an angry gesture of impatience that he replied:
"Again you have overstepped the boundary within which we can possibly understand each other. In my opinion you are hardly old enough to undertake the salvation of the imperilled souls of pretty women. Take care what you are about, youngster! It is safe enough to go into the water with those who can swim, but those who sink are apt to draw you down with them. You are a good-looking young fellow, you have money and fine horses, and there are women enough who are only too ready to spread their nets abroad. . ."
"What are you thinking of?" cried Marcus passionately. "It is I who am the fisher--a fisher of souls, and so every true believer ought to be. She--she is innocence and simplicity itself, in spite of her roguish sauciness. But she has fallen into the hands of a reprobate heathen, and here, where vice prowls about the city like a roaring lion, she will be lost--lost, if I do not rescue her. Twice have I seen her in my dreams; once close to the cavern of a raging dragon, and again on the edge of a precipitous cliff, and each time an angel called out to me and bid me save her from the jaws of the monster, and from falling into the abyss. Since then I seem to see her constantly; at meals, when I am in company, when I am driving,--and I always hear the warning voice of the angel. And now I feel it a sacred duty to save her--a creature on whom the Almighty has lavished every gift he ever bestowed on the daughters of Eve--to lead her into the path of Salvation."
Demetrius had listened to his brother's enthusiastic speech with growing anxiety, but he merely shrugged his shoulders and said:
"I almost envy you your acquaintance with this favorite of the gods; but you might, it seems to me, postpone the work of salvation. You were away from Alexandria for half a year, and if she could hold out so long as that . . ."
"Do not speak so; you ought not to speak so!" cried Marcus, pressing his hand on his heart as though in physical pain. "But I have no time to lose, for I must at once find out where the old singer has taken her. I am not so inexperienced as you seem to think. He has brought her here to trade in her beauty, and enrich himself. Why, you, too, saw her on board ship; I, as you know, had arranged for them to be taken in at my mother's Xenodochium."
"Whom?" asked Demetrius folding his hands.
"The singers whom I brought with me from Ostia. And now they have disappeared from thence, and Dada . . ."
"Dada!" cried Demetrius, bursting into a loud laugh without heeding Marcus who stepped up to him, crimson with rage. "Dada! that little fair puss! You see her day and night and an angel calls upon you to save that child's merry soul? You ought to be ashamed of yourself, boy! Why, what shall I wager now? I will stake this roll of gold that I could make her come with me to-morrow--with me, a hard-featured countryman, freckled all over like a plover's egg, where my clothes do not protect my skin, and with hair on end like the top of a broom--yes, that she will follow me to Arsinoe or wherever I choose to bid her. Let the hussy go, you simple innocent. Such a Soul as hers is of small account even in a less exclusive Heaven than yours is."
"Take back those words!" cried Marcus, beside himself and clenching his fist. "But that is just like you! Your impure eyes and heart defile purity itself, and see spots even in the sun. Nothing is too bad for a 'singing girl,' I know. But that is just the marrow of the matter; it is from that very curse that I mean to save her. If you can accuse her of anything, speak; if not, and if you do not want to appear a base slanderer in my eyes, take back the words you have just spoken!"
"Oh! I take them back of course," said Demetrius indifferently. "I know nothing of your beauty beyond what she has herself said to me and you and Cynegius and his Secretaries--with her pretty, saucy eyes. But the language of the eye, they say, is not always to be depended on; so take it as unsaid. And, if I understood you rightly, you do not even know where the singers are hiding? If you have no objection, I will help you to seek them out."
"That is as you please," answered Marcus hotly. "All your mockery will not prevent my doing my duty."
"Very right, very right," said his brother. "Perhaps this damsel is unlike all the other singing-girls with whom I used so often to spend a jolly evening in my younger days. Once, at Barca, I saw a white raven--but perhaps after all it was only a dove. Your opinion, in this case, is at any rate better founded than mine, for I never thought twice about the girl and you did.--But it is late; till to-morrow, Marcus."
The brothers parted for the night, but when Demetrius found himself alone he walked up and down the room, shaking his head doubtfully. Presently, when his body-slave came in to pack for him, he called out crossly:
"Let that alone--I shall stay in Alexandria a few days longer."
Marcus could not go to bed; his brother's scorn had shaken his soul to the foundations. An inward voice told him that his more experienced senior might be right, but at the same time he hated and contemned himself for listening to its warnings at all. The curse that rested on Dada was that of her position; she herself was pure--as pure as a lily, as pure as the heart of a child, as pure as the blue of her eyes and the ring of her voice. He would obey the angel's behest! He could and he must save her!
In the greatest excitement he went out of the house, through the great gate, into the Canopic way, and walked on. As he was about to turn down a side street to go to the lake he found the road stopped by soldiers, for this street led past the prefect's house where Cynegius, the Emperor's emissary, was staying; he had come, it was said, to close the Temples, and the excited populace had gathered outside the building, during the afternoon, to signify their indignant disapprobation. At sundown an armed force had been called out and had dispersed the crowd; but it was by another road that the young Christian at length made his way to the shore.