Homo Sum by Georg Ebers
The unfortunate Paulus sat on a stone bench in front of the senator's door, and shivered; for, as dawn approached, the night-air grew cooler, and he was accustomed to the warmth of the sheepskin, which he had now given to Hermas. In his hand he held the key of the church, which he had promised the door-keeper to deliver to Petrus; but all was so still in the senator's house, that he shrank from rousing the sleepers.
"What a strange night this has been!" he muttered to himself, as he drew his short and tattered tunic closer together. "Even if it were warmer, and if, instead of this threadbare rag, I had a sack of feathers to wrap myself in, still I should feel a cold shiver if the spirits of hell that wander about here were to meet me again. Now I have actually seen one with my own eyes. Demons in women's form rush up the mountain out of the oasis to tempt and torture us in our sleep. What could it have been that the goblin in a white robe and with flowing hair held in its arms? Very likely the stone with which the incubus loads our breast when he torments us. The other one seemed to fly, but I did not see its wings. That side-building must be where the Gaul lives with his ungodly wife, who has ensnared my poor Hermas. I wonder whether she is really so beautiful! But what can a youth who has grown up among rocks and caves know of the charms of women. He would, of course, think the first who looked kindly at him the most enchanting of her sex. Besides she is fair, and therefore a rare bird among the sunburnt bipeds of the desert. The centurion surely cannot have found the sheepskin or all would not be so still here; once since I have been here an ass has brayed, once a camel has groaned, and now already the first cock is crowing; but not a sound have I heard from human lips, not even a snore from the stout senator or his buxom wife Dorothea, and it would be strange indeed if they did not both snore."
He rose, went up to the window of Phoebicius dwelling, and listened at the half open shutters, but all was still.
An hour ago Miriam had been listening under Sirona's room; after betraying her to Phoebicius she had followed him at a distance, and had slipped back into the court-yard through the stables; she felt that she must learn what was happening within, and what fate had befallen Hermas and Sirona at the hands of the infuriated Gaul. She was prepared for anything, and the thought that the centurion might have killed them both with the sword filled her with bitter-sweet satisfaction. Then, seeing the light through the crack between the partly open wooden shutters, she softly pushed them farther apart, and, resting her bare feet against the wall, she raised herself to look in.
She saw Sirona sitting up upon her couch, and opposite to her the Gaul with pale distorted features; at his feet lay the sheepskin; in his right hand he held the lamp, and its light fell on the paved floor in front of the bed, and was reflected in a large dark red pool.
"That is blood," thought she, and she shuddered and closed her eyes.
When she reopened them she saw Sirona's face with crimson cheeks, turned towards her husband; she was unhurt--but Hermas?
"'That is his blood!" she thought with anguish, and a voice seemed to scream in her very heart, "I, his murderess, have shed it."
Her hands lost their hold of the shutters, her feet touched the pavement of the yard, and, driven by her bitter anguish of soul, she fled out by the way she had come--out into the open and up to the mountain. She felt that rather would she defy the prowling panthers, the night-chill, hunger and thirst, than appear again before Dame Dorothea, the senator, and Marthana, with this guilt on her soul; and the flying Miriam was one of the goblin forms that had terrified Paulus.
The patient anchorite sat down again on the stone seat. "The frost is really cruel," thought he, "and a very good thing is such a woolly sheepskin; but the Saviour endured far other sufferings than these, and for what did I quit the world but to imitate Him, and to endure to the end here that I may win the joys of the other world. There, where angels soar, man will need no wretched ram's fell, and this time certainly selfishness has been far from me, for I really and truly suffer for another--I am freezing for Hermas, and to spare the old man pain. I would it were even colder! Nay, I will never, absolutely never again lay a sheepskin over my shoulders."
Paulus nodded his head as if to signify assent to his own resolve; but presently he looked graver, for again it seemed to him that he was walking in a wrong path.
"Aye! Man achieves a handful of good, and forthwith his heart swells with a camel-load of pride. What though my teeth are chattering, I am none the less a most miserable creature. How it tickled my vanity, in spite of all my meditations and scruples, when they came from Raithu and offered me the office of elder; I felt more triumphant the first time I won with the quadriga, but I was scarcely more puffed up with pride then, than I was yesterday. How many who think to follow the Lord strive only to be exalted as He is; they keep well out of the way of His abasement. Thou, O Thou Most High, art my witness that I earnestly seek it, but so soon as the thorns tear my flesh the drops of blood turn to roses, and if I put them aside, others come and still fling garlands in my way. I verily believe that it is as hard here on earth to find pain without pleasure, as pleasure without pain."
While thus he meditated his teeth chattered with cold, but suddenly his reflections were interrupted, for the dogs set up a loud barking. Phoebicius was knocking at the senator's door.
Paulus rose at once, and approached the gate-way. He could hear every word that was spoken in the court-yard; the deep voice was the senator's, the high sharp tones must be the centurion's.
Phoebicius was demanding his wife back from Petrus, as she had hidden in his house, while Petrus positively declared that Sirona had not crossed his threshold since the morning of the previous day.
In spite of the vehement and indignant tones in which his lodger spoke, the senator remained perfectly calm, and presently went away to ask his wife whether she by chance, while he was asleep, had opened the house to the missing woman. Paulus heard the soldier's steps as he paced up and down the court-yard, but they soon ceased, for Dame Dorothea appeared at the door with her husband, and on her part emphatically declared that she knew nothing of Sirona.
"Your son Polykarp then," interrupted Phoebicius, "will be better informed of her whereabouts."
"My son has been since yesterday at Raithu on business," said Petrus resolutely but evasively; "we expect him home to-day only."
"It would seem that he has been quick, and has returned much sooner," retorted Phoebicius. "Our preparations for sacrificing on the mountain were no secret, and the absence of the master of the house is the opportunity for thieves to break in--above all, for lovers who throw roses into their ladies' windows. You Christians boast that you regard the marriage tie as sacred, but it seems to me that you apply the rule only to your fellow-believers. Your sons may make free to take their pleasure among the wives of the heathen; it only remains to be proved whether the heathen husbands will be trifled with or not. So far as I am concerned, I am inclined for anything rather than jesting. I would have you to understand that I will never let Caesar's uniform, which I wear, be stained by disgrace, and that I am minded to search your house, and if I find my undutiful wife and your son within its walls, I will carry them and you before the judge, and sue for my rights."
"You will seek in vain," replied Petrus, commanding himself with difficulty. "My word is yea or nay, and I repeat once more no, we harbor neither her nor him. As for Dorothea and myself--neither of us is inclined to interfere in your concerns, but neither will we permit another--be he whom he may--to interfere in ours. This threshold shall never be crossed by any but those to whom I grant permission, or by the emperor's judge, to whom I must yield. You, I forbid to enter. Sirona is not here, and you would do better to seek her elsewhere than to fritter away your time here."
"I do not require your advice!" cried the centurion wrathfully.
"And I," retorted Petrus, "do not feel myself called upon to arrange your matrimonial difficulties. Besides you can get back Sirona without our help, for it is always more difficult to keep a wife safe in the house, than to fetch her back when she has run away."
"You shall learn whom you have to deal with!" threatened the centurion, and he threw a glance round at the slaves, who had collected in the court, and who had been joined by the senator's eldest son. "I shall call my people together at once, and if you have the seducer among you we will intercept his escape."
"Only wait an hour," said Dorothea, now taking up the word, while she gently touched her husband's hand, for his self-control was almost exhausted, "I and you will see Polykarp ride home on his father's horse. Is it only from the roses that my son threw into your wife's window, that you suppose him to be her seducer--she plays so kindly with all his brothers and sisters--or are there other reasons, which move you to insult and hurt us with so heavy an accusation?"
Often when wrathful men threaten to meet with an explosion, like black thunder-clouds, a word from the mouth of a sensible woman gives them pause, and restrains them like a breath of soft wind.
Phoebicius had no mind to listen to any speech from Polykarp's mother, but her question suggested to him for the first time a rapid retrospect of all that had occurred, and he could not conceal from himself that his suspicions rested on weak grounds. And at the same time he now said to himself, that if indeed Sirona had fled into the desert instead of to the senator's house he was wasting time, and letting the start, which she had already gained, increase in a fatal degree.
But few seconds were needed for these reflections, and as he was accustomed when need arose to control himself, he said:
"We must see--some means must be found--" and then without any greeting to his host, he slowly returned to his own house. But he had not reached the door, when he heard hoofs on the road, and Petrus called after him, "Grant us a few minutes longer, for here comes Polykarp, and he can justify himself to you in his own person."
The centurion paused, the senator signed to old Jethro to open the gate; a man was heard to spring from his saddle, but it was an Amalekite--and not Polykarp--who came into the court.
"What news do you bring?" asked the senator, turning half to the messenger and half to the centurion. "My lord Polykarp, your son," replied the Amalekite--a dark brown man of ripe years with supple limbs, and a sharp tongue--"sends his greetings to you and to the mistress, and would have you to know that before mid-day he will arrive at home with eight workmen, whom he has engaged in Raithu. Dame Dorothea must be good enough to make ready for them all and to prepare a meal."
"When did you part from my son?" inquired Petrus.
"Two hours before sundown."
Petrus heaved a sigh of relief, for he had not till now been perfectly convinced of his son's innocence; but, far from triumphing or making Phoebicius feel the injustice he had done him, he said kindly--for he felt some sympathy with the Gaul in his misfortune:
"I wish the messenger could also give some news of your wife's retreat; she found it hard to accommodate herself to the dull life here in the oasis, perhaps she has only disappeared in order to seek a town which may offer more variety to such a beautiful young creature than this quiet spot in the desert."
Phoebicius waved his hand with a negative movement, implying that he knew better, and said, "I will show you what your nice night-bird left in my nest. It may be that you can tell me to whom it belongs."
Just as he hastily stepped across the court-yard to his own dwelling Paulus entered by the now open gate; he greeted the senator and his family, and offered Petrus the key of the church.
The sun meanwhile had risen, and the Alexandrian blushed to show himself in Dame Dorothea's presence in his short and ragged under-garment, which was quite inefficient to cover the still athletic mould of his limbs. Petrus had heard nothing but good of Paulus, and yet he measured him now with no friendly eye, for all that wore the aspect of extravagance repelled his temperate and methodical nature. Paulus was made conscious of what was passing in the senator's mind when, without vouchsafing a single word, he took the key from his hand. It was not a matter of indifference to him, that this man should think ill of him, and he said, with some embarrassment:
"We do not usually go among people without a sheepskin, but I have lost mine."
Hardly had he uttered the words, when Phoebicius came back with Hermas' sheepskin in his hand, and cried out to Petrus:
"This I found on my return home, in our sleeping-room."
"And when have you ever seen Polykarp in such a mantle?" asked Dorothea.
"When the gods visit the daughters of men," replied the centurion, "they have always made choice of strange disguises. Why should not a perfumed Alexandrian gentleman transform himself for once into one of those rough fools on the mountain? However, even old Homer sometimes nodded--and I confess that I was in error with regard to your son. I meant no offence, senator! You have lived here longer than I; who can have made me a present of this skin, which still seems to be pretty new--horns and all."
Petrus examined and felt the skin, "This is an anchorite's garment," he said; "the penitents on the mountain are all accustomed to wear such."
"It is one of those rascals then that has found his way into my house!" exclaimed the centurion. "I bear Caesar's commission, and I am to exterminate ill vagabonds that trouble the dwellers in the oasis, or travellers in the desert. Thus run the orders which I brought with me from Rome. I will drive the low fellows together like deer for hunting, for they are all rogues and villains, and I shall know how to torture them until I find the right one."
"The emperor will ill-requite you for that," replied Petrus. "They are pious Christians, and you know that Constantine himself--"
"Constantine!" exclaimed the centurion scornfully. "Perhaps he will let himself be baptized, for water can hurt no one, and he cannot, like the great Diocletian, exterminate the masses who run after the crucified miracle-monger, without depopulating the country. Look at these coins; here is the image of Caesar, and what is this on the other side? Is this your Nazarene, or is it the old god, the immortal and invincible sun? And is that man one of your creed, who in Constantinople adores Tyche and the Dioscuri Castor and Pollux? The water he is baptized with to-day he will wipe away to-morrow, and the old gods will be his defenders, if in more peaceful times he maintains them against your superstitions."
"But it will be a good while till then," said Perrus coolly. "For the present, at least, Constantine is the protector of the Christians. I advise you to put your affair into the hands of Bishop Agapitus."
"That he may serve me up a dish of your doctrine, which is bad even for women," said the centurion laughing; "and that I may kiss my enemies' feet? They are a vile rabble up there, I repeat it, and they shall be treated as such till I have found my man. I shall begin the hunt this very day."
"And this very day you may end it, for the sheepskin is mine."
It was Paulus who spoke these words in a loud and decided tone; all eyes were at once turned on him and on the centurion.
Petrus and the slaves had frequently seen the anchorite, but never without a sheepskin similar to that which Phoebicius held in his hand. The anchorite's self-accusation must have appeared incredible, and indeed scarcely possible, to all who knew Paulus and Sirona; and nevertheless no one, not even the senator, doubted it for an instant. Dame Dorothea only shook her head incredulously, and though she could find no explanation for the occurrence, she still could not but say to herself, that this man did not look like a lover, and that Sirona would hardly have forgotten her duty for his sake. She could not indeed bring herself to believe in Sirona's guilt at all, for she was heartily well disposed towards her; besides--though it, no doubt, was not right--her motherly vanity inclined her to believe that if the handsome young woman had indeed sinned, she would have preferred her fine tall Polykarp--whose roses and flaming glances she blamed in all sincerity--to this shaggy, wild-looking graybeard.
Quite otherwise thought the centurion. He was quite ready to believe in the anchorite's confession, for the more unworthy the man for whom Sirona had broken faith, the greater seemed her guilt, and the more unpardonable her levity; and to his man's vanity it seemed to him easier--particularly in the presence of such witnesses as Petrus and Dorothea--to bear the fact that his wife should have sought variety and pleasure at any cost, even at that of devoting herself to a ragged beggar, than that she should have given her affections to a younger, handsomer, and worthier man than himself. He had sinned much against her, but all that lay like feathers on his side of the scales, while that which she had done weighed down hers like a load of lead. He began to feel like a man who, in wading through a bog, has gained firm ground with one foot, and all these feelings gave him energy to walk up to the anchorite with a self-control, of which he was not generally master, excepting when on duty at the head of his soldiers.
He approached the Alexandrian with an assumption of dignity and a demeanor which testified to his formerly having taken part in the representations of tragedies in the theatres of great cities. Paulus, on his part, did not retreat by a single step, but looked at him with a smile that alarmed Petrus and the rest of the bystanders. The law put the anchorite absolutely into the power of the outraged husband, but Phoebicius did not seem disposed to avail himself of his rights, and nothing but contempt and loathing were perceptible in his tone, as he said:
"A man who takes hold of a mangy dog in order to punish him, only dirties his hand. The woman who betrayed me for your sake, and you--you dirty beggar--are worthy of each other. I could crush you like a fly that can be destroyed by a blow of my hand if I chose, but my sword is Caesar's, and shall never be soiled by such foul blood as yours; however, the beast shall not have cast off his skin for nothing, it is thick, and so you have only spared me the trouble of tearing it off you before giving you your due. You shall find no lack of blows. Confess where your sweetheart has fled to and they shall be few, but if you are slow to answer they will be many. Lend me that thing there, fellow!"
With these words he took a whip of hippopotamus hide out of a camel-driver's band, went close up to the Alexandrian, and asked: "Where is Sirona?"
"Nay, you may beat me," said Paulus. "However hard your whip may fall on me, it cannot be heavy enough for my sins; but as to where your wife is hiding, that I really cannot tell you--not even if you were to tear my limbs with pincers instead of stroking me with that wretched thing."
There was something so genuinely honest in Paulus' voice and tone, that the centurion was inclined to believe him; but it was not his way to let a threatened punishment fail of execution, and this strange beggar should learn by experience that when his hand intended to hit hard, it was far from "stroking." And Paulus did experience it, without uttering a cry, and without stirring from the spot where he stood.
When at last Phoebicius dropped his weary arm and breathlessly repeated his question, the ill-used man replied, "I told you before I do not know, and therefore I cannot reveal it."
Up to this moment Petrus, though he had felt strongly impelled to rush to the rescue of his severely handled fellow-believer, had nevertheless allowed the injured husband to have his way, for he seemed disposed to act with unusual mildness, and the Alexandrian to be worthy of all punishment; but at this point Dorothea's request would not have been needed to prompt him to interfere.
He went up to the centurion, and said to him in an undertone, "You have given the evil-doer his due, and if you desire that he should undergo a severer punishment than you can inflict, carry the matter--I say once more--before the bishop. You will gain nothing more here. Take my word for it, I know the man and his fellow-men; he actually knows nothing of where your wife is hiding, and you are only wasting the time and strength which you would do better to save, in order to search for Sirona. I fancy she will have tried to reach the sea, and to get to Egypt or possibly to Alexandria; and there--you know what the Greek city is--she will fall into utter ruin."
"And so," laughed the Gaul, "find what she seeks--variety, and every kind of pleasure. For a young thing like that, who loves amusement, there is no pleasant occupation but vice. But I will spoil her game; you are right, it is not well to give her too long a start. If she has found the road to the sea, she may already--Hey, here Talib!" He beckoned to Polykarp's Amalekite messenger. "You have just come from Raithu; did you meet a flying woman on the way, with yellow hair and a white face?"
The Amalekite, a free man with sharp eyes, who was highly esteemed in the senator's house, and even by Phoebicius himself, as a trustworthy and steady man, had expected this question, and eagerly replied:
"At two stadia beyond el Heswe I met a large caravan from Petra, which rested yesterday in the oasis here; a woman, such as you describe, was running with it. When I heard what had happened here I wanted to speak, but who listens to a cricket while it thunders?"
"Had she a lame greyhound with her?" asked Phoebicius, full of expectation.
"She carried something in her arms," answered the Amalekite. "In the moonlight I took it for a baby. My brother, who was escorting the caravan, told me the lady was no doubt running away, for she had paid the charge for the escort not in ready money, but with a gold signet-ring."
The Gaul remembered a certain gold ring with a finely carved onyx, which long years ago he had taken from Glycera's finger, for she had another one like it, and which he had given to Sirona on the day of their marriage.
"It is strange!" thought he, "what we give to women to bind them to us they use as weapons to turn against us, be it to please some other man, or to smooth the path by which they escape from us. It was with a bracelet of Glycera's that I paid the captain of the ship that brought us to Alexandria; but the soft-hearted fool, whose dove flew after me, and I are men of a different stamp; I will follow my flown bird, and catch it again." He spoke the last words aloud, and then desired one of the senator's slaves to give his mule a good feed and drink, for his own groom, and the superior decurion who during his absence must take his place, were also worshippers of Mithras, and had not yet returned from the mountain.
Phoebicius did not doubt that the woman who had joined the caravan--which he himself had seen yesterday--was his fugitive wife, and he knew that his delay might have reduced his earnest wish to overtake her and punish her to the remotest probability; but he was a Roman soldier, and would rather have laid violent hands on himself than have left his post without a deputy. When at last his fellow-worshippers came from their sacrifice and worship of the rising sun, his preparations for his long journey were completed.
Phoebicius carefully impressed on the decurion all he had to do during his absence, and how he was to conduct himself; then he delivered the key of his house into Petrus' keeping as well as the black slave-woman, who wept loudly and passionately over the flight of her mistress; he requested the senator to bring the anchorite's misdeed to the knowledge of the bishop, and then, guided by the Amalekite Talib, who rode before him on his dromedary, he trotted hastily away in pursuit of the caravan, so as to reach the sea, if possible, before its embarkation.
As the hoofs of the mule sounded fainter and fainter in the distance, Paulus also quitted the senator's courtyard; Dorothea pointed after him as he walked towards the mountain. "In truth, husband," said she, "this has been a strange morning; everything that has occurred looks as clear as day, and yet I cannot understand it all. My heart aches when I think what may happen to the wretched Sirona if her enraged husband overtakes her. It seems to me that there are two sorts of marriage; one was instituted by the most loving of the angels, nay, by the All-merciful Himself, but the other it is not to be thought of! How can those two live together for the future? And that under our roof! Their closed house looks to me as though ruined and burnt-out, and we have already seen the nettles spring up which grow everywhere among the ruins of human dwellings."