Homo Sum by Georg Ebers
Miriam's ears had not betrayed her. While she was detained at supper, Hermas had opened the courtyard-gate; he came to bring the senator a noble young buck, that he had killed a few hours before, as a thank-offering for the medicine to which his father owed his recovery. It would no doubt have been soon enough the next morning, but he could find no rest up on the mountain, and did not--and indeed did not care to--conceal from himself the fact, that the wish to give expression to his gratitude attracted him down into the oasis far less than the hope of seeing Sirona, and of hearing a word from her lips.
Since their first meeting he had seen her several times, and had even been into her house, when she had given him the wine for his father, and when he had taken back the empty flask. Once, as she was filling the bottle which he held, out of the large jar, her white fingers had touched his, and her enquiry whether he were afraid of her, or if not, why his hands which looked so strong should tremble so violently, dwelt still in his mind. The nearer he approached Petrus's house the more vehemently his heart beat; he stood still in front of the gate-way, to take breath, and to collect himself a little, for he felt that, agitated as he was, he would find it difficult to utter any coherent words.
At last he laid his hand on the latch and entered the yard. The watch-dogs already knew him, and only barked once as he stepped over the threshold.
He brought a gift in his hand, and he wanted to take nothing away, and yet he appeared to himself just like a thief as he looked round, first at the main building lighted up by the moon, and then at the Gaul's dwelling-house, which, veiled in darkness, stood up as a vague silhouette, and threw a broad dark shadow on the granite flags of the pavement, which was trodden to shining smoothness. There was not a soul to be seen, and the reek of the roast sheep told him that Petrus and his household were assembled at supper.
"I might come inopportunely on the feasters," said he to himself, as he threw the buck over from his left to his right shoulder, and looked up at Sirona's window, which he knew only too well.
It was not lighted up, but a whiter and paler something appeared within its dark stone frame, and this something, attracted his gaze with an irresistible spell; it moved, and Sirona's greyhound set up a sharp barking.
It was she--it must be she! Her form rose before his fancy in all its brilliant beauty, and the idea flashed through his mind that she must be alone, for he had met her husband and the old slave woman among the worshippers of Mithras on their way to the mountain. The pious youth, who so lately had punished his flesh with the scourge to banish seductive dream-figures, had in these few days become quite another man. He would not leave the mountain, for his father's sake, but he was quite determined no longer to avoid the way of the world; nay, rather to seek it. He had abandoned the care of his father to the kindly Paulus, and had wandered about among the rocks; there he had practised throwing the discus, he had hunted the wild goats and beasts of prey, and from time to time--but always with some timidity--he had gone down into the oasis to wander round the senator's house, and catch a glimpse of Sirona.
Now that he knew that she was alone, he was irresistibly drawn to her. What he desired of her, he himself could not have said; and nothing was clear to his mind beyond the wish to touch her fingers once more.
Whether this were a sin or not, was all the same to him; the most harmless play was called a sin, and every thought of the world for which he longed, and he was fully resolved to take the sin upon himself, if only he might attain his end. Sin after all was nothing but a phantom terror with which they frighten children, and the worthy Petrus had assured him that he might be a man capable of great deeds. With a feeling that he was venturing on an unheard of act he went towards Sirona's window, and she at once recognized him as he stood in the moonlight.
"Hermas!" he heard her say softly. He was seized with such violent terror that he stood as if spellbound, the goat slipped from his shoulders, and he felt as if his heart had ceased to beat. And again the sweet woman's voice called, "Hermas, is it you? What brings you to us at such a late hour?"
He stammered an incoherent answer, and "I do not understand; come a little nearer." Involuntarily he stepped forward into the shadow of the house and close up to her window. She wore a white robe with wide, open sleeves, and her arms shone in the dim light as white as her garment. The greyhound barked again; she quieted it, and then asked Hermas how his father was, and whether he needed some more wine. He replied that she was very kind, angelically kind, but that the sick man was recovering fast, and that she had already given him far too much. Neither of them said anything that might not have been heard by everybody, and yet they whispered as if they were speaking of some forbidden thing.
"Wait a moment," said Sirona, and she disappeared within the room, she soon reappeared, and said solid and sadly, "I would ask you to come into the house but Phoebicius has locked the door. I am quite alone, hold the flask so that I may fill it through the open window."
With these words she leaned over with the large jar--she was strong, but the wine-jar seemed to her heavier than on other occasions, and she said with a sigh, "The amphora is too heavy for me."
He reached up to help her; again his fingers met hers, and again he felt the ecstatic thrill which had haunted his memory day and night ever since he first had felt it. At this instant there was a sudden noise in the house opposite; the slaves were coming out from supper. Sirona knew what was happening; she started and cried out, pointing to the senator's door, "For all the gods' sake! they are coming out, and if they see you here I am lost!"
Hermas looked hastily round the court, and listened to the increasing noise in the other house, then, perceiving that there was no possible escape from the senator's people, who were close upon him, he cried out to Sirona in a commanding tone, "Stand back," and flung himself up through the window into the Gaul's apartment. At the same moment the door opposite opened, and the slaves streamed out into the yard.
In front of them all was Miriam, who looked all round the wide space-expectant; seeking something, and disappointed. He was not there, and yet she had heard him come in; and the gate had not opened and closed a second time, of that she was perfectly certain. Some of the slaves went to the stables, others went outside the gate into the street to enjoy the coolness of the evening; they sat in groups on the ground, looking up at the stars, chattering or singing. Only the shepherdess remained in the court-yard seeking him on all sides, as if she were hunting for some lost trinket. She searched even behind the millstones, and in the dark sheds in which the stone-workers' tools were kept.
Then she stood still a moment and clenched her hands; with a few light bounds she sprang into the shadow of the Gaul's house. Just in front of Sirona's window lay the steinbock; she hastily touched it with her slender naked toes, but quickly withdrew her foot with a shudder, for it had touched the beast's fresh wound, wet with its blood. She rapidly drew the conclusion that: he had killed it, and had thrown it down here, and that he could not be far off. Now she knew where he was in hiding-and she tried to laugh, for the pain she felt seemed too acute and burning for tears to allay or cool it. But she did not wholly lose her power of reflection. "They are in the dark," thought she, "and they would see me, if I crept under the window to listen; and yet I must know what they are doing there together."
She hastily turned her back on Sirona's house, slipped into the clear moonlight, and after standing there for a few minutes, went into the slaves' quarters. An instant after, she slipped out behind the millstones, and crept as cleverly and as silently as a snake along the ground under the darkened base of the centurion's house, and lay close under Sirona's window.
Her loudly beating heart made it difficult for even her sharp ears to hear, but though she could not gather all that he said, she distinguished the sound of his voice; he was no longer in Sirona's room, but in the room that looked out on the street.
Now she could venture to raise herself, and to look in at the open window; the door of communication between the two rooms was closed, but a streak of light showed her that in the farther room, which was the sitting-room, a lamp was burning.
She had already put up her hand in order to hoist herself up into the dark room, when a gay laugh from Sirona fell upon her ear. The image of her enemy rose up before her mind, brilliant and flooded with light as on that morning, when Hermas had stood just opposite, bewildered by her fascination. And now--now--he was actually lying at her feet, and saying sweet flattering words to her, and he would speak to her of love, and stretch out his arm to clasp her--but she had laughed.
Now she laughed again. Why was all so still again?
Had she offered her rosy lips for a kiss? No doubt, no doubt. And Hermas did not wrench himself from her white arms, as he had torn himself from hers that noon by the spring-torn himself away never to return.
Cold drops stood on her brow, she buried her hands in her thick, black hair, and a loud cry escaped her--a cry like that of a tortured animal. A few minutes more and she had slipped through the stable and the gate by which they drove the cattle in; and no longer mistress of herself, was flying up the mountain to the grotto of Mithras to warn Phoebicius.
The anchorite Gelasius saw from afar the figure of the girl flying up the mountain in the moonlight, and her shadow flitting from stone to stone, and he threw himself on the ground, and signed a cross on his brow, for he thought he saw a goblin-form, one of the myriad gods of the heathen--an Oread pursued by a Satyr. Sirona had heard the girl's shriek.
"What was that?" she asked the youth, who stood before her in the full-dress uniform of a Roman officer, as handsome as the young god of war, though awkward and unsoldierly in his movements.
"An owl screamed--" replied Hermas. "My father must at last tell me from what house we are descended, and I will go to Byzantium, the new Rome, and say to the emperor, 'Here am I, and I will fight for you among your warriors.'"
"I like you so!" exclaimed Sirona.
"If that is the truth," cried Hermas, "prove it to me! Let me once press my lips to your shining gold hair. You are beautiful, as sweet as a flower--as gay and bright as a bird, and yet as hard as our mountain rock. If you do not grant me one kiss, I shall long till I am sick and weak before I can get away from here, and prove my strength in battle."
"And if I yield," laughed Sirona, "you will be wanting another and another kiss, and at last not get away at all. No, no, my friend--I am the wiser of us two. Now go into the dark room, I will look out and see whether the people are gone in again, and whether you can get off unseen from the street window, for you have been here much too long already. Do you hear? I command you."
Hermas obeyed with a sigh; Sirona opened the shutter and looked out. The slaves were coming back into the court, and she called out a friendly word or two, which were answered with equal friendliness, for the Gaulish lady, who never overlooked even the humblest, was dear to them all. She took in the night-air with deep-drawn breaths, and looked up contentedly at the moon, for she was well content with herself.
When Hermas had swung himself up into her room, she had started back in alarm; he had seized her hand and pressed his burning lips to her arm, and she let him do it, for she was overcome with strange bewilderment.
Then she heard Dame Dorothea calling out, "Directly, directly, I will only say good night first to the children." These simple words, uttered in Dorothea's voice, had a magical effect on the warm-hearted woman--badly used and suspected as she was, and yet so well formed for happiness, love and peace. When her husband had locked her in, taking even her slave with him, at first she had raved, wept, meditated revenge and flight, and at last, quite broken down, had seated herself by the window in silent thought of her beautiful home, her brothers and sisters, and the dark olive groves of Arelas.
Then Hermas appeared. It had not escaped her that the young anchorite passionately admired her, and she was not displeased, for she liked him, and the confusion with which he had been overcome at the sight of her flattered her and seemed to her doubly precious because she knew that the hermit in his sheepskin, on whom she had bestowed a gift of wine, was in fact a young man of distinguished rank. And how truly to be pitied was the poor boy, who had had his youth spoilt by a stern father. A woman easily bestows some tender feeling on the man that she pities; perhaps because she is grateful to him for the pleasure of feeling herself the stronger, and because through him and his suffering she finds gratification for the noblest happiness of a woman's heart--that of giving tender and helpful care; women's hands are softer than ours. In men's hearts love is commonly extinguished when pity begins, while admiration acts like sunshine on the budding plant of a woman's inclination, and pity is the glory which radiates from her heart.
Neither admiration nor pity, however, would have been needed to induce Sirona to call Hermas to her window; she felt so unhappy and lonely, that any one must have seemed welcome from whom she might look for a friendly and encouraging word to revive her deeply wounded self-respect. And there came the young anchorite, who forgot himself and everything else in her presence, whose looks, whose movement, whose very silence even seemed to do homage to her. And then his bold spring into her room, and his eager wooing--"This is love," said she to herself. Her cheeks glowed, and when Hermas clasped her hand, and pressed her arm to his lips, she could not repulse him, till Dorothea's voice reminded her of the worthy lady and of the children, and through them of her own far-off sisters.
The thought of these pure beings flowed over her troubled spirit like a purifying stream, and the question passed through her mind, "What should I be without these good folks over there, and is this great love-sick boy, who stood before Polykarp just lately looking like a school-boy, is he so worthy that I should for his sake give up the right of looking them boldly in the face?" And she pushed Hermas roughly away, just as he was venturing for the first time to apply his lips to her perfumed gold hair, and desired him to be less forward, and to release her hand.
She spoke in a low voice, but with such decision, that the lad, who was accustomed to the habit of obedience, unresistingly allowed her to push him into the sitting-room. There was a lamp burning on the table, and on a bench by the wall of the room, which was lined with colored stucco, lay the helmet, the centurion's staff, and the other portions of the armor which Phoebicius had taken off before setting out for the feast of Mithras, in order to assume the vestments of one of the initiated of the grade of "Lion."
The lamp-light revealed Sirona's figure, and as she stood before him in all her beauty with glowing cheeks, the lad's heart began to beat high, and with increased boldness he opened his arms, and endeavored to draw her to him; but Sirona avoided him and went behind the table, and, leaning her hands on its polished surface while it protected her like a shield, she lectured him in wise and almost motherly words against his rash, intemperate, and unbecoming behavior.
Any one who was learned in the heart of woman might have smiled at such words from such lips and in such an hour; but Hermas blushed and cast down his eyes, and knew not what to answer. A great change had come over the Gaulish lady; she felt a great pride in her virtue, and in the victory she had won over herself, and while she sunned herself in the splendor of her own merits, she wished that Hermas too should feel and recognize them. She began to expatiate on all that she had to forego and to endure in the oasis, and she discoursed of virtue and the duties of a wife, and of the wickedness and audacity of men.
Hermas, she said, was no better than the rest, and because she had shown herself somewhat kind to him, he fancied already that he had a claim on her liking; but he was greatly mistaken, and if only the courtyard had been empty, she would long ago have shown him the door.
The young hermit was soon only half listening to all she said, for his attention had been riveted by the armor which lay before him, and which gave a new direction to his excited feelings. He involuntarily put out his hand towards the gleaming helmet, and interrupted the pretty preacher with the question, "May I try it on?"
Sirona laughed out loud and exclaimed, much amused and altogether diverted from her train of thought, "To be sure. You ought to be a soldier. How well it suits you! Take off your nasty sheepskin, and let us see how the anchorite looks as a centurion."
Hermas needed no second telling; he decked himself in the Gaul's armor with Sirona's help. We human beings must indeed be in a deplorable plight; otherwise how is it that from our earliest years we find such delight in disguising ourselves; that is to say, in sacrificing our own identity to the tastes of another whose aspect we borrow. The child shares this inexplicable pleasure with the sage, and the stern man who should condemn it would not therefore be the wiser, for he who wholly abjures folly is a fool all the more certainly the less he fancies himself one. Even dressing others has a peculiar charm, especially for women; it is often a question which has the greater pleasure, the maid who dresses her mistress or the lady who wears the costly garment.
Sirona was devoted to every sort of masquerading. If it had been needful to seek a reason why the senator's children and grandchildren were so fond of her, by no means last or least would have been the fact that she would willingly and cheerfully allow herself to be tricked out in colored kerchiefs, ribands, and flowers, and on her part could contrive the most fantastic costumes for them. So soon as she saw Hermas with the helmet on, the fancy seized her to carry through the travesty he had begun. She eagerly and in perfect innocence pulled the coat of armor straight, helped him to buckle the breastplate and to fasten on the sword, and as she performed the task, at which Hermas proved himself unskilful enough, her gay and pleasant laugh rang out again and again. When he sought to seize her hand, as he not seldom did, she hit him sharply on the fingers, and scolded him.
Hermas' embarrassment thawed before this pleasant sport, and soon he began to tell her how hateful the lonely life on the mountain was to him. He told her that Petrus himself had advised him to try his strength out in the world, and he confided to her that if his father got well, he meant to be a soldier, and do great deeds. She quite agreed with him, praised and encouraged him, then she criticised his slovenly deportment, showed him with comical gravity how a warrior ought to stand and walk, called herself his drill-master, and was delighted at the zeal with which he strove to imitate her.
In such play the hours passed quickly. Hermas was proud of himself in his soldierly garb, and was happy in her presence and in the hope of future triumphs; and Sirona was gay, as she had usually been only when playing with the children, so that even Miriam's wild cry, which the youth explained to be the scream of an owl, only for a moment reminded her of the danger in which she was placing herself. Petrus' slaves had long gone to rest before she began to weary of amusing herself with Hermas, and desired him to lay aside her husband's equipment, and to leave her. Hermas obeyed while she warily opened the shutters, and turning to him, said, "You cannot venture through the court-yard; you must go through this window into the open street. But there is some one coming down the road; let him pass first, it will not be long to wait, for he is walking quickly."
She carefully drew the shutters to, and laughed to see how clumsily Hermas set to work to unbuckle the greaves; but the gay laugh died upon her lips when the gate flew open, the greyhound and the senator's watch-dogs barked loudly, and she recognized her husband's voice as he ordered the dogs to be quiet.
"Fly-fly-for the gods' sake!" she cried in a trembling voice. With that ready presence of mind with which destiny arms the weakest woman in great and sudden danger, she extinguished the lamp, flung open the shutter, and pushed Hermas to the window. The boy did not stay to bid her farewell, but swung himself with a strong leap down into the road, and, followed by the barking of the dogs, which roused all the neighboring households, he flew up the street to the little church.
He had not got more than half-way when he saw a man coming towards him; he sprang into the shadow of a house, but the belated walker accelerated his steps, and came straight up to him. He set off running again, but the other pursued him, and kept close at his heels till he had passed all the houses and began to go up the mountain-path. Hermas felt that he was outstripping his pursuer, and was making ready for a spring over a block of stone that encumbered the path, when he heard his name called behind him, and he stood still, for he recognized the voice of the man from whom he was flying as that of his good friend Paulus.
"You indeed" said the Alexandrian, panting for breath. "Yes, you are swifter than I. Years hang lead on our heels, but do you know what it is that lends them the swiftest wings? You have just learned it! It is a bad conscience; and pretty things will be told about you; the dogs have barked it all out loud enough to the night."
"And so they may!" replied Hermas defiantly, and trying in vain to free himself from the strong grasp of the anchorite who held him firmly. "I have done nothing wrong."
"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife!" interrupted Paulus in a tone of stern severity. "You have been with the centurion's pretty wife, and were taken by surprise. Where is your sheepskin?"
Hermas started, felt on his shoulder, and exclaimed, striking his fist against his forehead, "Merciful Heaven!--I have left it there! The raging Gaul will find it."
"He did not actually see you there?" asked Paulus eagerly.
"No, certainly not," groaned Hermas, "but the skin--"
"Well, well," muttered Paulus. "Your sin is none the less, but something may be done in that case. Only think if it came to your father's ears; it might cost him his life."
"And that poor Sirona!" sighed Hermas.
"Leave me to settle that," exclaimed Paulus. I will make everything straight with her. There, take sheepskin. You will not? Well, to be sure, the man who does not fear to commit adultery would make nothing of becoming his father's murderer.--There, that is the way! fasten it together over your shoulders; you will need it, for you must quit this spot, and not for to-day and to-morrow only. You wanted to go out into the world, and now you will have the opportunity of showing whether you really are capable of walking on your own feet. First go to Raithu and greet the pious Nikon in my name, and tell him that I remain here on the mountain, for after long praying in the church I have found myself unworthy of the office of elder which they offered me. Then get yourself carried by some ship's captain across the Red Sea, and wander up and down the Egyptian coast. The hordes of the Blemmyes have lately shown themselves there; keep your eye on them, and when the wild bands are plotting some fresh outbreak you can warn the watch on the mountain-peaks; how to cross the sea and so outstrip them, it will be your business to find out. Do you feel bold enough and capable of accomplishing this task? Yes? So I expected! Now may the Lord guide you. I will take care of your father, and his blessing and your mother's will rest upon you if you sincerely repent, and if you now do your duty."
"You shall learn that I am a man," cried Hermas with sparkling eyes. "My bow and arrows are lying in your cave, I will fetch them and then--aye! you shall see whether you sent the right man on the errand. Greet my father, and once more give me your hand."
Paulus grasped the boy's right hand, drew him to him, and kissed his forehead with fatherly tenderness. Then he said, "In my cave, under the green stone, you will find six gold-pieces; take three of them with you on your journey. You will probably need them at any rate to pay your passage. Now be off, and get to Raithu in good time."
Hermas hurried up the mountain, his head full of the important task that had been laid upon him; dazzling visions of the great deeds he was to accomplish eclipsed the image of the fair Sirona, and he was so accustomed to believe in the superior insight and kindness of Paulus that he feared no longer for Sirona now that his friend had made her affair his own.
The Alexandrian looked after him, and breathed a short prayer for him; then he went down again into the valley.
It was long past midnight, and the moon was sinking; it grew cooler and cooler, and since he had given his sheepskin to Hermas he had nothing on, but his thread-bare coat. Nevertheless he went slowly onwards, stopping every now and then, moving his arms, and speaking incoherent words in a low tone to himself.
He thought of Hermas and Sirona, of his own youth, and of how in Alexandria he himself had tapped at the shutters of the dark-haired Aso, and the fair Simaitha.
"A child--a mere boy," he murmured. "Who would have thought it? The Gaulish woman no doubt may be handsome, and as for him, it is a fact, that as he threw the discus I was myself surprised at his noble figure. And his eyes--aye, he has Magdalen's eyes! If the Gaul had found him with his wife, and had run his sword through his heart, he would have gone unpunished by the earthly judge--however, his father is spared this sorrow. In this desert the old man thought that his darling could not be touched by the world and its pleasures. And now? These brambles I once thought lay dried up on the earth, and could never get up to the top of the palm-tree where the dates ripen, but a bird flew by, and picked up the berries, and carried them into its nest at the highest point of the tree.
"Who can point out the road that another will take, and say to-day, 'To-morrow I shall find him thus and not otherwise.'
"We fools flee into the desert in order to forget the world, and the world pursues us and clings to our skirts. Where are the shears that are keen enough to cut the shadow from beneath our feet? What is the prayer that can effectually release us--born of the flesh--from the burden of the flesh? My Redeemer, Thou Only One, who knowest it, teach it to me, the basest of the base."